By Jeff Knight
How We Met
It’s the middle of the night, early autumn of 1982. A bunch of college kids and a couple of grad students — the coaches and members of the UNC speech team — are crammed into one of those land-barge white Econoline vans, on our way to a tournament in Ohio. We’re tired; we’re hungry. We have to compete the next morning, and five hours of sleep is a best-case scenario. I’m a junior, 20 years old. It’s one of my first tournaments, and I am feeling the bliss of belonging. After some fIoundering, some false starts, I’ve found my college tribe.
Randy Harrington, a grad student, one of the coaches, is a little older and a lot cooler than I am. All these decades later, that characterization holds up: a little older, a lot cooler. As spirits flag and fatigue sets in, Randy decides to boost morale by getting a song going. He launches into the Grateful Dead’s “Friend of the Devil.”
The song, the tale of a weary outlaw who can’t catch a damn break and longs for the sweet escape of sleep, is perfect. Our sense of identification isn’t fair — we’re privileged college kids, chased by zero sheriffs and zero devils — but it is complete. Halfway into the song, we’re all singing on the chorus. It’s a great singalong piece, reliably one of the most participation-friendly things when you’re hanging out with guitars. I’d never been aware of hearing the song before, but two choruses in and, dude, I’m hooked.
Composition and Versions
The song was initially written by Robert Hunter (Jerry Garcia’s main songwriting collaborator), working with John Dawes, of the hippie folk band New Riders of the Purple Sage. Garcia listened to a rough demo, liked it, added a bridge, told Hunter he wanted the song for the Dead, and got his way. Jerry’s vocal is fantastic, with the spot-on storytelling quality singers long for. His acoustic lead line is lively, bluegrassy, exactly what is meant by the word “rollicking.” It’s warm and mahogany-toned, played on one of the all-time great bluegrass instruments, a Martin D-18. [And not just bluegrass: you may also appreciate that model’s tone from Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged set, wherein Kurt Cobain plays a D-18 of his own. Plenty of people with great tone, from Tracy Chapman to Jason Isbell, have played D-18s. ]
There are a number of covers. In fact, the song recently moved out of my peripheral vision because I got stuck on the 2016 Mumford and Sons version, recorded for Day of the Dead, an album featuring Dead covers by a lot of likeminded acts (The National, Jenny Lewis, e.g.), with proceeds benefitting AIDS research. The Mumford version is moody. Brooding organ. Slower pace. Not rollicking. And those qualities draw a different emphasis from the lyric. It’s not woo-hoo, I managed to stay one step ahead of the law! It’s more like holy crap, everything is dark, and I could wind up in prison anytime. It’s the non-glorified version of outlawdom: anxiety, dirt, and sleep-deprivation. There’s something of that as well in Lyle Lovett’s version (from an earlier Dead tribute/benefit album), though I get more resignation with Lyle, like: okay, I chose this path, now here it is. Also, there’s cello, which I really like, as well as the great lost verse* which I like even more.
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers covered the song live a few times, and included it in their Live Anthology release. It’s similar to the Dead version, but with a long harmonica intro. When Tom finally sings the first few words, there’s a burst of applause, delighted recognition from the center of a Venn diagram, Tom Petty fans who are also Deadheads.
Playing the Song
In my early twenties, when I first started learning to sort-of play guitar and sort-of sing, “Friend of the Devil” was one of the first songs I sort-of learned. I played it for my mom once, on a trip home. I had thought the song’s sense of adventure would appeal to her. Instead, her reaction was almost completely religious. “Friend of the DEVIL? Who would want to be a friend of the DEVIL?” I’d quit even hearing that, you know? I’d just been hearing it as an outlaw song. Her reaction led me to reconsider: yeah, why be a friend of the devil? What’s that about?
The short answer is that unless you’re a choosy beggar, you’ll be a friend of the devil if you’re in dire enough straits that you’ll take any help you can get. The longer answer is that you’ll be a friend of the devil if you’re a babe in the woods too green to know any better. After all, the devil helps our protagonist out briefly, then vanishes, only to reappear in short order to take back what he had earlier given.
Another lyric that playing the song has led me to puzzle over is the recurring “set out running, but I take my time.” It’s a direct internal contradiction! Which is it, Jerry? If you’re running, you’re not taking your time. I’ve mulled this thing over. Maybe it’s sequential? At first you were running, but now you’re taking your time? And why is that? Do you think they’ve given up pursuit? Did you realize that the only pursuers left are figments of your paranoia, so now you can relax? Or is the running such a crappy life that you don’t even care anymore if you get caught, and you decided that your pace was as bad as prison? In this tension between anxiety and resignation, I hear existential echoes of Robert Johnson’s “Hellhound on My Trail,” as well as Merle Haggard’s “I’m a Lonesome Fugitive.” You know in your bones that everything is against you, from cosmic forces to the rule of law.
One of the rewards of a decades-long relationship with a song, especially if you play and sing, is considering these kinds of things, from this or that lyric to how the song works in dialogue with other songs. “Friend of the Devil” is probably the song I’ve played and sung more than any other.
In my house these days, just about every month, friends come over in the afternoon, and we drink beer and goof around with the dogs, and at some point we get out guitars and violas or somebody sits down at the piano, and we start playing songs that at least one of us can lead well enough for everybody to follow.
This is some of the best stuff in my life. And this song that has become an old friend is right there with me.
*For reasons I don’t know, the Grateful Dead’s original canon version of the song leaves off the best verse: “You can borrow from the devil/You can borrow from your friends/The devil’ll give you twenty/When your friends ain’t got but ten.” To my mind, it’s an O. Henry bullseye of situational irony, and the fact that the best verse is generally forgotten somehow makes the whole thing better, in a wabi-sabi kind of way. I include it every damn time.
Jeff Knight writes poems, songs, stories, and essays in Austin, Texas. His romantic comedy novella, Lunchbox Love Letters, is available as an ebook from Amazon, and his poems have appeared in Rattle, South Carolina Review, and The Museum of Americana, among other places. You can check out his songs on his YouTube channel (Jeff’s Next Page), and his thoughts about life and art at www.jeffsnextpage.com.